Adonis Diaries

Archive for March 4th, 2015


20 books to read in 2015: TED-Ed Educators share their top 5 must-reads     

If one of your New Year’s Resolutions was the classic “read more books” and you haven’t so much as opened a magazine, we’re here to provide some inspiration.

TED-Ed asked a few of our favorite educators to weigh in on the best books in their subject — for students, teachers and lifelong learners alike — to crack into during 2015.

Here, find a list of their top 5 picks in literature, science, math and history.


*Recommendations from TED-Ed Educator Matthew Winkler, author of the ‘What makes a hero?’ lesson.

The Best American Nonrequired Reading by Dave Eggers
Remember your required reading from high school? Impressive samples of literature, certainly, but didn’t you wish for greater variety?

Thanks to Dave Eggers, variety is what you’ll find inside each edition of the BANR. A fresh panel of high school students curates a new anthology each year with surprising results.

Aesop’s Fables by Aesop
Aesop’s Fables have survived for 2,500 years because they are as well-constructed and immutable as the pyramids. Written as simple stories about animals, these parables pose ethical dilemmas and consider various responses – human behavior under a microscope.

The most telescopic works of literature could all be parsed into the handful of Aesop’s fables that they examine within a broader, deeper context.

The Writing Life by Annie Dillard
This sentence was composed to communicate information, and you are consuming it in the same spirit. In Dillard’s slender manifesto, she reminds us all to elevate this practical transaction, to connect our written words to what is vital and essential. This book will recharge your respect for language and its power in your life.

The Tiger’s Wife: A Novel by Téa Obreht
The Tiger’s Wife is a labyrinth of flashbacks and detours that hypnotizes the reader. The luxurious prose of this National Book Award Finalist draws us forward as the story unfolds, turn by turn. Long after finishing the novel, the reader is haunted by its revelations.

Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair: Dual-Language Edition by Pablo Neruda (Author), W.S. Merwin (Translator)
If you are lovestruck, or brokenhearted, or in between these conditions, this book is required reading. Published when the great poet and statesman was only nineteen years old, this collection launched his literary reputation.

The dual-language edition is recommended: read the poems aloud and anyone listening is likely to burst into tears, or kiss you, or both.

(I have published several of his poems)


*Recommendations from TED-Ed Educator Lucianne Walkowicz, author of the ‘Light waves, visible and invisible’ lesson.

The Martian by Andy Weir
The Martian tells the story of astronaut Mark Watney. Separated from and presumed dead by his fellow crewmates while on a Martian expedition, Watney is left behind to struggle for survival.

Watney is a plucky, inventive character, immediately likable, and readers will plow through The Martian rooting for him with every word. This book is a delight to read for anyone who loves to think about space travel, or anyone who just loves to tinker, fix things, and solve problems through imaginative DIY solutions.

The science in the book is sound and detailed, but woven into the story in a way that makes it accessible and gives the reader a realistic sense of what it might be like to live on another planet.

The Illustrated Man by Ray Bradbury
Though I’ve read a great deal of Ray Bradbury’s work over the years, it’s The Illustrated Man that comes back to me again and again. Prescient about a variety of technologies that exist in some form or another today, imaginative and magical while still being mostly grounded in reality, reading this book is like looking through a window into another dimension.

Surely You’re Joking Mr Feynman by Richard Feynman
Richard Feynman was not only an incredible physicist, but an incredible character as well.

Surely You’re Joking is the first in a series of books recounting his own personal anecdotes from his life and scientific career. Irreverent and funny, Feynman’s voice has a cowboy, punk-rock aesthetic that transports the reader to the frontiers of physics as he lived them.

Radioactive by Lauren Redniss
Radioactive is a graphic novel recounting the story of physicists Marie and Pierre Curie. A winner of the Nobel Prize in both physics and chemistry, Marie Curie was also the first female Nobel medalist.

This book tells the story not only of her scientific work but of the love story between her and husband Pierre, also an accomplished scientist in his own right. The illustrations are artful, unique and eye catching, setting it apart from other graphic novels on the basic of visual style alone.

Managing Martians by Donna Shirley
Managing Martians was published on the heels of the Mars Pathfinder mission, which brought the first Martian rover, Sojourner, to the Martian surface.

Another first for the Pathfinder mission was that it was the first mission to be headed by a woman: Donna Shirley, who tells the story of her life and the mission in this book. Shirley’s story is not only interesting from the standpoint of the mission she led, which began the era of Mars surface exploration that continues today, but as a story of someone who succeeded in a male-dominated field at a time when her options were constantly limited by her gender.

Through hard work and a circuitous path, Shirley’s success story is an inspirational one of triumph over struggle.


*Recommendations from Natalya St. Clair, author of the ‘Music and math: The genius of Beethoven,’ ‘The unexpected math behind Van Gogh’s Starry Night’ and ‘Did Shakespeare write his plays?’ lessons.

The Code Book by Simon Singh
This book is for anyone who is interested in learning more about mathematics not normally taught in secondary-level school.

Simon Singh spins a compelling tale of the history of cryptography, starting from the ancient ‘Rome and the Caesar’ cipher to future speculation about quantum cryptography. I can remember first reading this book in high school and falling in love with math and physics — which is one of the reasons I majored in math in college! Singh is a great expositor and keeps the history (and math!) alive for a broad audience.

Secrets of Mental Math by Arthur Benjamin
Arthur Benjamin is a professor of mathematics who combines his passions for mathematics and magic in order to create a “mathemagics” show.

His TED Talk demonstrating his rapid mental calculations can be viewed here (and TED-Ed Lesson here!). In this book Benjamin discloses all his secrets to computing numbers quickly so that anyone can build his or her own “mathemagics” show. This book is appropriate for all ages and is a joy to read.

Love and Math by Edward Frenkel
Edward Frenkel tells an engaging and personal story of his journey in mathematics. Starting from his childhood under the mentorship of a family friend all the way to his present research in the Langlands Program, mathematics and Frenkel form a relationship that can only be called love.

Some of the math is higher level than high school, but Frenkel makes it accessible so that most readers can understand the hidden beauty in mathematics surrounding us. The book recently won the 2015 Euler Book Prize through the Mathematics Association of America.

The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa
This touching novel brings mathematics to light with an interesting twist. Set in modern Japan, Ogawa tells the story of a “Housekeeper” who takes care of the “Professor,” a mathematician whose short-term memory only lasts about 80 minutes. The Professor builds a relationship with the Housekeeper and her son, “Root,” and all three share equations, stories, and relationships with each other.

Flatland by Edward Abbot
I include this book not only because it’s a classic, but because it’s also important both for learning some fun mathematics and as learning about Victorian satirical social commentary.

The novel features A. Square, a mathematician who lives in a two-dimensional infinitely flat plane, where women are straight lines and men have numbers of sides depending on their social status. There is a great dialogue about different dimensions, starting from the lowly zero-dimensional point all the way to the rather abstract three-dimensional spaceland (so what would a four-dimensional object look like?). For those hoping to “Dig Deeper,” check out Flatland the Movie as well.


*Recommendations from Kathryn Tempest, author of the ‘The great conspiracy against Julius Caesar’ lesson.

Annals and Histories by Tacitus
In these works, the Roman historian Tacitus tells of a world ‘rich in disasters, terrible with battles, torn by civil struggles, horrible even in peace’. This is not my summary, but the words used by Tacitus himself to describe the years following the death of Rome’s first emperor, Augustus, up to and including the death of Domitian (AD 14-96).

Featuring some of the most notorious episodes and personalities of Roman history – such as the reign of Nero and the great fire of Rome, the persecution of the Christians, the revolt of Boudicca, and the emperors Tiberius, Caligula and Claudius – the Annals and Histories spin an intriguing, and at times shocking, narrative of the corruption of power in Imperial Rome.

Greek and Roman Lives by Plutarch
I love reading Plutarch’s Lives. If you want to know more about the famous men of Greece and Rome, then these short, accessible and immensely enjoyable biographies are for you. You can find out more about famous generals and statesmen from Alexander the Great to Julius Caesar; read about the political contexts in which men like Pericles and Cicero operated; and even learn all the juicy gossip that circulated about their private lives.

Plutarch has a great eye for anecdotes and stories which he uses to illustrate both the personalities and exploits of his subjects, and to draw valuable moral lessons from them. There are numerous editions and translations available but I recommend these versions because, in my opinion, they cover some of the most fascinating lives.

Histories by Herodotus
Herodotus is the ultimate storyteller and, according to one famous verdict, the ‘father of history’ itself. His overarching goal is to explain the great clash between the Greeks and the barbarians which culminated in the Persian wars of 490 and 480-479 BC.

But this is no straightforward narrative. Rather, you will find yourself being taken on a wonderful tour of different lands, customs and peoples – all driven by Herodotus’ immense spirit of enquiry. I have only just started reading this new translation by Tom Holland, but it is without doubt one of the best I have read. The excellent introduction and notes by Paul Cartledge are a real added bonus! This book offers a really easy way to learn about Greece’s early history as well as the origins of an entire discipline.

Pompeii: The Life of a Roman Town by Mary Beard
Pompeii never loses its ability to fascinate: from the grandeur of its largest houses down to the daily grind of its inhabitants, the tragedy that struck in AD 79 did not discriminate between its victims. The eruption of Mt Vesuvius left many of thousands dead.

‘But ghoulishness is not the whole story’, says Mary Beard in the introduction to this excellent book on Pompeian life. And what I love is the way she proceeds to tell that story. Beard does not shy away from the academic nitty-gritty or the difficult questions, but takes her reader on a fascinating excavation of the site of this Roman town and the challenges faced in interpreting its remains.

The no-nonsense and down to earth approach of this book makes it at once readable, gripping and hugely informative.

Myths and Legends by Anthony Horowitz
I recommend this book because it caters to kids of all sizes, even the grown up ones! Ancient myths and legends continue to enthral and excite everyone who reads or hears them. Yet Anthony Horowitz has such a fantastic and fun writing style that he really makes these stories come alive.

Packed full of weird and amazing tales – myths and legends from Greece, Egypt, Rome, China, India and more – it provides a compelling read.

What books would you add to this list? Happy reading! >>


Libertarian vacation nightmare: who was debunked?

Eliminate all taxes, privatize everything, load a country up with guns and oppose all public expenditures, you end up with Honduras.

Last month, I spent my final vacation night in Honduras in San Pedro Sula, considered the most dangerous city outside of the war-torn Middle East.

I would not have been scared, except that I traveled with my wife and our four children, aged 5, 7, 14 and 18.

On our last taxi ride, we could not find a van to fit us all, so we rode in two taxis. Mine carried me and my two daughters, aged 5 and 14, while the driver blasted Willie Nelson singing “City of New Orleans” (a city that is also considered very dangerous).

 Lyngar posted this March 2, 2015

Enlarge A photo of the author with Ron Paul

It was a surreal moment, traveling in one of the most dangerous cities in the world with my babies in tow.  I gave a nod to the radio. “Willie,” I said, and he gave me a grin and vigorous “sí.

There’s a lot of American cowboy culture in Honduras, but along with silly hats, Honduras has also taken one of our other worst ideas—libertarian politics.

By the time I’d made it to San Pedro Sula, I’d seen much of the countryside and culture.  It’s a wonderful place, filled with music, great coffee, fabulous cigars and generous people, but it’s also a libertarian experiment coming apart.

People better than I have analyzed the specific political moves that have created this modern day libertarian dystopia.

Mike LaSusa recently wrote a detailed analysis of such, laying out how the bad ideas of libertarian politics have been pursued as government policy.

In America, libertarian ideas are attractive to mostly young, white men with high ideals and no life experience that live off of the previous generation’s investments and sacrifice.

I know this because as a young, white idiot, I subscribed to this system of discredited ideas:

1.  Selfishness is good,

2. government is bad.

3. Take what you want, when you want and however you can.

4. Poor people deserve what they get, and the smartest, hardworking people always win.  So get yours before someone else does.

I read the books by Charles Murray and have an autographed copy of Ron Paul’s “The Revolution.” The thread that links all the disparate books and ideas is that they fail in practice.

Eliminate all taxes, privatize everything, load a country up with guns and oppose all public expenditures, you end up with Honduras.

In Honduras, the police ride around in pickup trucks with machine guns, but they aren’t there to protect most people.  They are scary to locals and travelers alike.

For individual protection there’s an army of private, armed security guards who are found in front of not only banks, but also restaurants, ATM machines, grocery stores and at any building that holds anything of value whatsoever.

Some guards have uniforms and long guns but just as many are dressed in street clothes with cheap pistols thrust into waistbands.

The country has a handful of really rich people, a small group of middle-class, some security guards who seem to be getting by and a massive group of people who are starving to death and living in slums.

You can see the evidence of previous decades of infrastructure investment in roads and bridges, but it’s all in slow-motion decay.

My libertarian vacation nightmare: How Ayn Rand, Ron Paul & their groupies were all debunked

I took a van trip across the country, starting in Copan (where there are must-see Mayan ruins), across to the Caribbean Sea to a ferry that took my family to Roatan Island.

The trip from Copan to the coast took a full six hours, and we had two flat tires.  The word “treacherous” is inadequate—a better description is “post-apocalyptic.”

We did not see one speed limit sign in hundreds of kilometers.  Not one.  People drive around each other on the right and left and in every manner possible.

The road was clogged with horses, scooters and bicycles.  People traveled in every conceivable manner along the crumbling arterial.

Few cars have license plates, and one taxi driver told me that the private company responsible for making them went bankrupt.

Instead of traffic stops, there are military check points every so often.  The roads seemed more dangerous to me than the gang violence.

The greatest examples of libertarianism in action are the hundreds of men, women and children standing alongside the roads all over Honduras.  The government won’t fix the roads, so these desperate entrepreneurs fill in potholes with shovels of dirt or debris.  They then stand next to the filled-in pothole soliciting tips from grateful motorists.  That is the wet dream of libertarian private sector innovation.

On the mainland there are two kinds of neighborhoods, slums that seem to go on forever and middle-class neighborhoods where every house is its own citadel.

In San Pedro Sula, most houses are surrounded by high stone walls topped with either concertina wire or electric fence at the top.  As I strolled past these castle-like fortifications, all I could think about was how great this city would be during a zombie apocalypse.

On a previous vacation abroad, I’d met a resident of San Pedro Sula by the name of Alberto.  Through Facebook, we connected up to have drinks and share a short tour of his home city.  A member of the small, dwindling middle class, Alberto objects to his city being labeled the most dangerous in the Western Hemisphere.

He showed me a few places in the city that could have been almost anywhere, a hipster bar, a great seafood place (all guarded by armed men, of course).  Alberto took me on a small hike to a spot overlooking the city and pointed out new construction and nice buildings.

There are new buildings and construction but it is funded exclusively by private industry.  He pointed out a place for a new airport that could be the biggest in Central America, he said, if only it could get built, but there is no private sector upside.  Alberto made me see the potential, the hope and even the hidden beauty of the place.

For our last meal in San Pedro Sula, my family walked a couple blocks from our fortress-like bed and breakfast to a pizza restaurant.  It was the middle of the day and we were the only customers.

We walked through the gated walls and past a man in casual slacks with a pistol belt slung haphazardly around his waist.  Welcome to an Ayn Rand’s libertarian paradise, where your extra-large pepperoni pizza must also have an armed guard.

Part of the reason this discredited, libertarian bullshit still carries any weight for Americans is because so few of us travel Only 30% of Americans have passports, and if Americans do go places, it’s not often to Honduras.

On the mainland of Honduras, we saw no more than a handful of Americans.  I did see many more on the tourist-centric island of Roatan, but of course this slice of beach paradise is not at all representative of the larger country or its problems.

It has nonstop flights from the U.S. directly to the island so you can skip all the needless reality.

One can dismiss the core of near-sociopathic libertarian ideas with one simple question: What kind of society maximizes freedom while providing the best outcomes for the greatest number of human beings? 

You cannot start with the assumption that a Russian novel writer from the ’50s is a genius, so therefore all ideas about government and society must fit between the pages of “Atlas Shrugged.”  That concept is stupid, and sends you on the opposite course of “good outcomes for human beings.”  The closer you get to totally untamed, uncontrolled privatization, the nearer you approach “Lord of the Flies.”

These questions about how best to provide a good society are not being asked in Honduras, but they are also ignored in the United States as a matter of routine.  We have growing income inequality and government is being ever more controlled by a few extremely wealthy political donors.

Our own infrastructure is far from admired worldwide, and the trend doesn’t look good from where I’m sitting. We have yet to stop our own political rhetoric to address the basic question about what kind of place and in what type of society we want to live.

Society should not exist to make a few people fabulously wealthy while others starve.

Almost all humanity used to live this way, and we called it feudalism.  Many people want to go back to that sort of system, this time under the label of libertarian or “the untrammeled free market.”

The name is irrelevant because the results are the same.  In Honduras, I did not meet one person who had nice things to say about the government or how the country is run.  My takeaway from the trip is that living in a libertarian paradise satisfies only a few of the wealthiest citizens, while everyone else thinks it sucks.

Honduras has problems but people should go visit anyway and soon.  The dangers are fleeting, and there are coffee plantations to tour, ruins to see, cigars to smoke and fish to catch.  The people need your tourism dollars.

As a bonus, it’s important for Americans to see the outcome when the bad ideas of teenage boys and a bad Russian writer are put into practice.  Everyone believes in freedom, but it’s an idea both fetishized and unrecognizable when spouted by libertarians.  There can be no such thing as freedom, safety or progress of any kind, when an entire society is run for the benefit of a handful of rich assholes and global conglomerates.  If you think I’m overstating it, just go to Honduras and see it for yourself.

You can follow Edwin Lyngar on twitter @Edwin_Lyngar

I no longer…

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March 2015

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